Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is an expanding global health problem, closely linked to the epidemic of obesity. Individuals with T2DM are at high risk for both microvascular complications (including retinopathy, nephropathy and neuropathy) and macrovascular complications (such as cardiovascular comorbidities), owing to hyperglycaemia and individual components of the insulin resistance (metabolic) syndrome. Environmental factors (for example, obesity, an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity) and genetic factors contribute to the multiple pathophysiological disturbances that are responsible for impaired glucose homeostasis in T2DM. Insulin resistance and impaired insulin secretion remain the core defects in T2DM, but at least six other pathophysiological abnormalities contribute to the dysregulation of glucose metabolism. The multiple pathogenetic disturbances present in T2DM dictate that multiple antidiabetic agents, used in combination, will be required to maintain normoglycaemia. The treatment must not only be effective and safe but also improve the quality of life. Several novel medications are in development, but the greatest need is for agents that enhance insulin sensitivity, halt the progressive pancreatic β-cell failure that is characteristic of T2DM and prevent or reverse the microvascular complications. For an illustrated summary of this Primer, visit: http://go.nature.com/V2eGfN.